Fear and Loathing on the Potomac

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Fear and Loathing on the Potomac

August 15, 2002 13 min read
Wesley Pruden
Senior Visiting Fellow

Newspapers have been called the first rough draft of history. Historians can polish that draft, test it, examine it, find ways to tell the story better, or at least with context and perspective, and as a newspaperman I'm content to let them do that. Getting the rough draft first, and getting it right, is job enough for me.

Sometimes the draft is very rough. That's why I call my remarks today, "Fear and Loathing on the Potomac: The Washington Times at Twenty." Twenty, I'm pleased to say, and counting. We've had a lot of fun, more fun than some of the people we've written about. Most of the fear, and all of the loathing, has been theirs, not ours.

Some of the wise men said we would last six months. The wisest of the wise men said six weeks. They said we would never last long enough to make a difference to anyone, and the idea that we would live to see the dawn of the third decade seemed vain and foolish. The Washington Post, said the skeptics, would wring our necks like a chicken.

Well, here we are. Some neck. Some chicken. (Sorry, Sir Winston. Just couldn't resist.)

One promise we've made to our readers, and we take this promise very seriously, is that we won't mock a reader's beliefs, and we won't put a vulgar newspaper on his doorstep. Sometimes, I concede, we've skated close to the mark on vulgarity. We have to cover Congress, for example, and not so long ago we had to cover a President who made keeping that promise difficult. But you won't hear me knocking that President. He was very, very good to me.

The story of an unexpected second newspaper in Washington is a story of tenacity and determination on the part of some very dedicated men and women, some of whom are in this room today, and the help of some very good and loyal friends, without whom we could never have done it, and some of the best and most loyal friends are in this room as well. God bless you and keep you.

The Times, like The Heritage Foundation, struggled to establish itself at the apogee of the Cold War, when despotism was on the march and the traditional American values, like the American spirit, seemed to be in retreat.

Ronald Reagan was new in town, trying to stoke the fires of the free market and pluck up the courage of those of us who still wanted to make a fight of it. He had managed to get himself elected President of the United States, but he was greeted, like the media establishment greeted us, with incredulity, suspicion, frustration, even anger.

A recession inherited from his predecessor threatened to descend into depression. The unemployment rate, the highest since 1940, was bumping 10 percent and the inflation rate was nudging close to 20 percent. The news from the financial pages was grim, almost without relief, with layoffs everywhere, factories closing across America, and personal incomes sinking everywhere.

It was a scary time, and here came a group of Koreans who everybody thought ought to be working in a greengrocer's on the corner, led by an evangelist for a religion that would have seemed weird even in Los Angeles, saying they wanted to challenge the richest and most entrenched newspaper in the world. Twenty years on, we can all be grateful they didn't know any better.

"When Washington, the nation's capital, ended up with one liberal newspaper, the Washington Post," that evangelist said, "I waited for some rich people with a lot of resources to come forward and publish a patriotic newspaper there. Since no one did, I stood up and said, `Let's do it.'" And so he did, and let the knocking begin.

Knocking, as some of you may have noticed, is very fashionable in Washington. Knocking newspapers, in fact, has never gone out of fashion. I do it sometimes myself, so I never blame anyone for throwing rocks at the media. Sometimes we even deserve it.

Once upon a time there was a colorful governor of Arkansas named Jeff Davis. He was the best natural politician Arkansas ever produced, and a certain famous successor studied him closely. Jeff Davis was very good at knocking newspapers, and they were very good at knocking him. He was fond of telling audiences about his little boy.

He's a wonderful little boy. His mother and I love him more than we love life itself. We have such big dreams for him. If it turns out, in the fullness and passage of time, that that little fella has above average intelligence, and we certainly think he does, we hope to make a preacher of him, to send him out to preach the Gospel, to lead sinners to God.

And if it turns out that he has just average intelligence, well, that's all right, too, and we'll just send him to law school. God has His uses for all of us, even for lawyers.

But if it turns out that that little boy just doesn't have a lick of sense, God will give us the grace to live with that, too. We'll just send him downtown to be the editor of the morning newspaper.


So when we came along 20 years ago we were determined to put out a different kind of newspaper. The birth of the Times into the ranks of America's newspapers was not a cause of celebration by those who dominated the ranks of mainstream journalism two decades ago. The Washington Times was to be a different kind of newspaper, one that would go for inspiration "back to the future," to a time when journalism, in the formulation of my colleague Fran Coombs, was war; when newspapers fought each other in bloody hand-to-hand combat to get it first, and a time of national consensus on issues of ethics and morality when the emphasis in the public prints was on the message and not the messenger. We would not only cover the news without slant or bias, but give voice to those who had been shut out of the national debate. This challenged a smug and entrenched journalism establishment that was swiftly losing touch with its constituency.

The Times was to be a newspaper to hold high the values of freedom, faith and family when those values are under assault by the forces of vulgarity and skepticism. Though the founding vision was that of a religious figure, a man of another country and another culture, the Times was to be wholly secular, to hold to no sectarian cause, to champion no denomination above any other but never to mock faith and belief, to proselytize only for the principles that liberate men from the tyranny of closed minds.

None of it would have been possible without the patient generosity of Rev. Moon and his colleagues, and the autonomy he guaranteed to the men and women who were to produce a newspaper that was to be both independent and faithful, speaking to the world every morning.

It has been an unlikely enterprise. There was first a cultural divide to overcome, not only between East and West but between a founder and his colleagues, all devout and religious men, and on our side an eccentric collection of rogues, scamps and vagabonds, all devoutly rowdy and some of us barely respectable enough for polite parlors, skeptical of nearly everything, as good newspapermen and women must be, living by the famous newsroom maxim that "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." Most of us are only vaguely religious, if religious at all, and if we were religious we held to a faith very different from that of the founder. Some of us have spent more time in a saloon than in a church.

At one time in our early days, when one reporter was hiding from his ex-wife and living in a hearse on the parking lot, when a visitor once described us as "the French foreign legion of newspapers," we had six Pulitzer medallists on the staff, and we were proud that at any given time at least one of them was sober.

Staffing a new daily newspaper was not easy. We took a nucleus from the old Star, but that was only a nucleus. Woody West, my comrade in arms from those early days, once said the newsroom looked like we had gone out on New York Avenue to stop traffic and ask if anyone wanted to be a city editor, a White House reporter, or a foreign correspondent.

But we had the stuff for a start. The one constant would be our editorial independence. We would never be told to put anything in the paper; more important, perhaps, we would never be asked to leave anything out. All that was ever asked was to be faithful to the task of reporting the news without fear or favor, to get it first and get it right.


We had certain advantages. We came along at a time when newspapers began dumbing it down, to cater to the absolute lowest common denominator in the cult of the masses. Newspapers nearly everywhere were dealing in dumb stereotypes, usually dreamed up in the fever swamps of the left. This led some people to think there's a media conspiracy to make America look bad, to depict all businessmen as crooks, to portray all cops as brutal, to describe our religious heritage as bigotry, to paint us all as racists. Sometimes it seems as if there is a conspiracy at work. But it was worse than that. It's a shared consensus where everyone thinks correct thoughts and those who don't get shut out of the debate.

This dumbing down of the media, ironically, is the result of the takeover of the media not by soulless corporate colossi, though that too, but by over-educated elites. When I started my career as a copy boy on my home town newspaper, nobody ever called us anything as grand as "journalists" or, "the media." We were just newspapermen. The word included both sexes. Back then, if you remember, there were only two sexes. We were the sons and daughters of plumbers, farmers, policemen, firemen, shopkeepers, farmers, railway clerks, and, in my case, a Baptist preacher.

Some of us were graduates of the nearest land-grant university and some of us were going to school at night at the junior college, hoping to find a way to get a degree. Some of us made it and some of us didn't. Most of us were military veterans. Some of us were in one of the National Guard companies. A few of us even went to church on Sunday. When we wrote about ordinary people, we didn't write about it as sociology. We were writing about our friends and our families. There were thousands like us at hundreds of newspapers across America.

Over the years, that changed. The newsrooms of the big agenda-setting newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the newsmagazines, the television networks, all became strongholds of the intellectual elites. These are the reporters and correspondents that young people in other newsrooms across the country emulate. Nearly all the editors and many of the reporters in these elite newsrooms are graduates of the Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Pennsylvania. Nothing wrong with the Ivy League. I have a certificate on my wall on home certifying that I attended Harvard. My matriculation there was part of a program at a convention of newspaper editors, sending us to Harvard for one full day. (That's about as long as anyone ought to stay at Harvard.)

We hold to conservative political views, but we do not cover the news with a conservative slant or bias. A newspaper with a conservative bias in covering the news is no better than the newspapers with a liberal bias, because the reader can never know when someone is blowing smoke at him. We keep our opinions, and we have a few, to the editorial and commentary pages, or to columns clearly identified as opinion, in the honored tradition of American newspapers. A famous mayor of New York City once said there is no Democratic way to solve a murder, no Republican way to put out a fire. I add to that, there is no conservative way, no liberal way, to report and write a reliable news story.


Naturally, this is a lot of fun. Our friends in both political parties have accused me from time to time of having too much fun, of sometimes making free with rowdy partisanship. I just quote everybody's favorite modern Democrat. Someone once accused Harry Truman of giving his opponents hell. "I don't give anyone hell," he said. "I just tell the truth, and they think it's hell."

Giving hell to the appropriate people is what newspapers are supposed to do. All newspapermen, who rarely agree on anything, agree on that much. But we've tried to remember that the First Amendment, while it guarantees a free press but not a good or necessarily even a responsible one, does not require an irresponsible press. Everyone likes to quote Jefferson on newspapers, but John Adams, flinty Yankee that he was, made a slightly different point. "If there is ever to be an amelioration of the condition of mankind, philosophers, theologians, legislators, politicians and moralists will find that regulation of the press is the most difficult, dangerous and important problem they have to resolve. Mankind cannot be governed without it, nor at present with it."

Things have not changed at all since then. A free press is crucial, even necessary, to an effective public. But it is also an invitation to abuse. We should not tolerate outsiders monitoring how we balance press rights and press responsibilities, but we sure ought to be concerned with doing that ourselves. We won't do it with high-minded codes of ethics or lofty statements of principle. H.L. Mencken called codes of journalistic ethics "flapdoodle and unenforceable," and that hasn't changed at all, either.

I got in a little trouble once at a convention in San Francisco of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which was debating whether to adopt one of these high-minded codes, when a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle asked me what I thought of the debate. I replied that looking for ethics at a convention of newspaper editors was like looking for a virgin in a cat house; you might find one but it's a heck of a place to look for one. This wound up on the Chronicle's front page. I try to remember now never to talk to reporters, and if I do to be careful what I say, but I still think that those who rely on written codes of conduct are often the most unethical among us.

And it wouldn't hurt if occasionally we asked ourselves whether we're not practicing what Marianne Jennings, an ethics and journalism professor, calls Jurassic Park ethics. Just because it was possible to clone dinosaurs didn't make it a good idea to clone dinosaurs, as that famous movie demonstrated, and just because we have the power to do as we please doesn't mean we should do as we please. CBS has the right to broadcast a videotape of the execution of Danny Pearl, but in my view that doesn't mean CBS should broadcast it. Someone at CBS could have weighed sensation against the feelings of Danny Pearl's family, friends, and countrymen and decided that maybe it wasn't necessary to put it on the air.

"Truth told with bad intent," as the poet William Blake said, "beats all the lies you can invent." Not long ago People magazine profiled Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and reported breathlessly that title covenants on his houses in Phoenix and in Vermont prohibited their resale to anyone of certain racial minorities. Shocking! Chief Justice, racist.

In fact, this old chestnut is brought out in nearly every election cycle, despite the fact that these covenants were declared unconstitutional and invalid 50 years ago, and nearly everyone in certain states, and not all of them Southern states, had them in their law books. Jesse Jackson no doubt has one in the title on his house in LeDroit Park. But this story was duly picked up by the wire services and it appeared in many newspapers. You'll see it again later this year. Just wait. An editor at People magazine should have spiked the story and lectured the reporter.

You could call this "value-based decision making" if you want to, but I never would. I would call it just doing the right thing.

We've had our share of scoops over these past two decades. That's what getting it first and getting it right is all about. But in the end, what being a good newspaper is about is doing the right thing, by reporting the news without fear or favor day in and day out, becoming a welcome daily visitor in the homes of its readers.

We're sometimes accused of wearing our love of America on our sleeves, and I guess we do. If "I love you" are the three most important words in the language, it doesn't hurt to say them to the country we love. I do believe that America is great because America is good, and that when America ceases to be good America will cease to be great. And since Alexis de Tocqueville apparently didn't say it, though everyone thinks he did, you should henceforth attribute that to me.

We call the Washington Times "America's Newspaper," not because we think we're the most important newspaper in America--if you want to think that we are we won't argue with you, but we certainly aren't the biggest. We call ourselves "America's newspaper" because we try to reflect what's good, what's worthy, what's best about America.

I leave it to others to say when we succeed at that, and when we fail. But I guarantee that every day, 365 days a year, we set out to do exactly that. That's what we've done every morning for two decades, and I promise that that's what we'll be doing when we embark on our third decade tomorrow--striking more fear, and more loathing, in the places where fear and loathing will do the most good. Thank you, and God bless us every one.

Wesley Pruden is the Editor in Chief of The Washington Times. This address was delivered at The Heritage Foundation as the Second Annual Distinguished Journalist Lecture, sponsored by the foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy.


Wesley Pruden

Senior Visiting Fellow